HISTORIC CONTEXT

aka Wickes aka Gregory aka Corbin aka Prickly Pear Creek

The Colorado/Wickes district was one of the most productive in the Helena region. It was first settled in 1864 when placer deposits were first discovered along Golconda Gulch and Prickly Pear Creek. Immediately after the placer discoveries, prospectors combed the surrounding area for the major lodes and located both the Gregory and Minah lodes in 1864. The Gregory mine was the first major lode mine and by the early 1880's was the district's leading producer. From 1883 to 1893 the Alta mine was the richest mine in the district although estimates vary as to the total production. The generally accepted estimate of the Alta's production is around $32 million dollars worth of silver/lead ore during this period. However, Philip K. Barbour, the nephew of mine owner Samuel T. Hauser, estimated the total production at only about $5.3 million. In 1900 the Comet (in the High Ore sub-district) became a large producer followed by the Minah which peaked a few years later. The most consistent and long-term producer during the twentieth century was the Mount Washington which was in production from 1890 to 1951. Other important mines in the district include: the Bertha which produced over 162,000 ounces of silver from 1906 to 1918; the Blizzard which was active from 1888 to 1896; the Minnesota, one of the oldest properties; and the Bluebird, discovered in 1887 and operated from 1907 to 1921. In addition, numerous small mines were scattered throughout the district (Pardee and Schrader 1933; Roby et al. 1960; Wolle 1963; Babcock et al. 1982).

The surficial geology of the area is "characterized by smoothly rounded, dome-like mountains typical of a maturely dissected upland" (Lorain and Hundausen 1948). Glaciation during the Pleistocene deposited glacial till on some portions of the district and altered some of the drainages. Below the glacial till lies the Boulder batholith within which are the minerals of economic significance to the Wickes area; the dominant minerals being silver, gold, lead, copper and zinc. Although the quartz monzonite of the Boulder batholith is the prevalent rock throughout the Colorado district and under the glacial till, andesite, aplite and dacite contribute to its geological composition. The quartz monzonite is intrusive and rests upon late Cretaceous andesite -- the oldest rock in the district. In return, abnormally large masses of aplite intrude upon the quartz monzonite, with the most notable being southwest of Jefferson City. Dacites appear west of Wickes, and form a series of porphyries. The dacite rests upon the eroded surface of the andesite and quartz monzonite, and is the youngest rock in the district. The ore deposits of the Colorado district occur in quartz veins which appear in the andesite, quartz monzonite and aplite.

The lode ores of the Colorado/Wickes district were a combination of silver, gold, lead, copper and zinc in just the right proportions of elements needed to smelt the ores. In the first years of the district a number of reduction works were built in the area to take advantage of the favorable ores. In 1867 the second smelter in the Montana Territory was built at the Gregory mine. An "American hearth furnace" was installed, but it proved to be a failure. A second furnace was built but was not much better. Finally a successful smelter operation was built at Wickes by the Helena Mining and Reduction Company which processed ores from the surrounding mines as well as from districts as far away as Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. It was the largest plant of its kind in Montana and was fueled by 25,000 bushels of charcoal a month produced in six kilns at Wickes. The smelter operated until 1893 when it was shut down and ore was then processed at East Helena (Roby et al. 1960; Wolle 1963).

The major impediment to development of the Colorado/Wickes District during this early period was transportation. Originally, small amounts of high-grade ore were shipped by wagon to Fort Benton and then by boat to St. Louis and then from there to Swansea, Wales to be smelted. Understandably, freight costs for shipping ore out and machinery and materials into the district were extremely high. Development was also hindered by a scarcity of skilled quartz lode miners and the financial panic of 1873 which dried up investment capital to develop the mines and, most important, to build the railroads the mining districts in Montana so desperately needed (Roby et al. 1960; Lorain and Hundhausen 1948; Spence 1978; Malone and Roeder 1976).

The situation changed dramatically in the 1880's due to financial recovery and the arrival of the railroads. In the winter of 1882-1883 the Northern Pacific was completed to Helena. By December of 1883 the Northern Pacific completed a feeder line called the Helena and Jefferson County branch - from Helena to Wickes. Later the Great Northern Railway would also build a line from Helena which passed through Wickes. The railroad ushered in a period of booming mining activities in the Colorado District as well as throughout the Montana Territory. From 1883 to the mid-1890s, Montana ranked second in the nation in the production of silver (except for 1887 when it was first). During this period, Montana mines produced roughly one-fourth of the nation's silver in addition to large amounts of gold, lead, copper, zinc and other metals which were found in the silver. The Colorado District was one of the most productive of the Montana mining areas and was reported to have produced over $50,000,000 worth of silver and other metals prior to 1900. The Alta, Gregory, Mt. Washington and Minah mines alone were credited with a total production of over $40,000,000 during this period (Malone and Roeder 1976; Spence 1973; Lorain and Hundhausen 1948; Becraft et al. 1963).

Wickes became a booming mining camp of some 1500 inhabitants with saloons, dance halls and other establishments extending a mile and a half up the gulch. The Wickes smelter was the largest plant of its kind in Montana and was fueled by six kilns which provided 25,000 bushels of charcoal a month. Most of the mines were at their peak productivity at this time. However, in 1893, the boom came to an abrupt send. During that year at Wickes, the Alta-Montana Company's reduction works burned down and the Helena Mining and Reduction Company's smelter was shut down and the smelting operations transferred to the East Helena smelter. The worst blow to the mining industry in Wickes and throughout the region was the Panic of 1893 and the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Most of the area's small, marginal mines closed as silver prices dropped and investment capital disappeared. A few like the Comet and the Minah managed to stay in production, but the boom period was over. The final blow came then the town of Wickes was nearly leveled by fires, once in 1900 and again in 1902 (Malone and Roeder 1976; Wolle 1963; Pardee and Schrader 1933; Knopf 1913).

Sporadic mining activity has continued throughout the district up to the present but has only recently surpassed the levels attained during the 1883-1893 period. Many of the old tailings dumps such as the Alta, Minah, Gregory and Comet were re-treated. Extensive underground work has been undertaken in the Alta, Mount Washington and Comet mines but with only limited success. Production records provide a means of assessing the difference in scale of mining activity in the Colorado/Wickes district through the years. It has been estimated the district produced values of $50,000,000 prior to 1900 while recorded production for the entire district from 1900 to 1987 is valued at $5,850,470. Even so, total production for all of Jefferson County is said to be around $100,000,000 which probably ranks it the second county in Montana in the value of metals produced. In 1987 the Montana Tunnels Mine, operated as a subsidiary of Pegasus Gold, began open pit operations in the area. The mine annually produces approximately 62,000 to 74,000 ounces of gold, 850,000 to 1,100,000 ounces of silver, 16,000,000 to 20,000,000 pounds of lead and 40,000,000 to 46,000,000 pounds of zinc. A plant on-site reduces the ore to concentrates or dore bullion; final reduction occurs at various smelters off-site (Becraft et al. 1963; Pegasus Gold Corporation ND; Roby et al. 1960).

BOUNDARIES OF THE DISTRICT

The Colorado district was the original name for what more generally became known as the Wickes mining district. Roby, Ackerman, Fulkerson and Crowley (1960) still use the older term and give the following description:

The Colorado/Wickes district is 20 miles south of Helena and in general embraces the Spring Creek drainage and extends southward from Quartz Creek and the headwaters of Clancy Creek to the headwaters of Spring Creek and the Great Northern Railway tunnel. The district is bordered on the east by U.S. Highway 91 and that branch of Prickly Pear Creek called Beavertown Creek and on the west by the divide between the Cataract Creek drainage and Clancy, Wood Chute, and Spring Creeks (Roby et al. 1960:44).

Other reports usually include this area within a somewhat larger Wickes district. Essentially the same area (although called the Wickes district) is described by Knopf (1913) as encompassing the towns of Wickes, Corbin, Jefferson, Gregory and Comet. Pardee and Schrader (1933) define a far larger area as the Wickes district. It includes:

...an area that extends from the Elkhorn Mountains west to the Continental Divide and is drained by Prickly Pear and Clancy Creeks (Pardee and Schrader 1933:232).

The district's area as defined by Becraft, Pinckney and Rosenblum (1963) is similar to that of Roby, Ackerman, Fulkerson and Crowley (1960):

The area referred to in this report as the Wickes mining district extends from the South fork of Quartz Creek on the north to near the head of Spring Creek on the south, and from the Occidental Plateau on the west to the east edge of the [Jefferson City] quadrangle. The mining district includes the mining camps of Wickes, Corbin, Gregory, the town of Jefferson City, and the seldom-recognized Golconda district around Golconda Creek (Becraft et al. 1963:69).

For purposes of historical evaluation the Colorado/Wickes district was defined by Anderson and Sommer (1990: Figure 3) to include all mines that were connected by road to Wickes and Corbin. These include significant mines such as the Argentine, Atlanta, Blue Stone, Copper Gulch Mines, Clancy Gulch Mines, Gregory, Minnesota, Rarus, Upper Blue Bird and Vandalia, as well as the Corbin mill and placers. It also includes mines in the Golconda Creek area.

Sections 4 - 9, 16 -21 and 28 - 33, T7N, R3W

Sections 31 - 36, T8N, R4W

Sections 1 - 30, T7N, R4W

Sections 1, 2, 11 - 14 and 23 - 26, T7N, R5W

HISTORIES OF SELECTED MINES

The following selection of mines in the Colorado district provides a range of sizes and types. The information is primarily taken from the mine sites which have been recorded historically.

Abe Mine

The Abe Mine is located in the Bluebird sub-district. It had a 400-ft tunnel and employed six men in 1909.

Alta

The Alta mine which contains rich lead and silver ore, is located about one mile north of Wickes. It was first prospected in 1869 by a man named Williams who sold it to the Montana Company who extensively developed the property. The mine consisted of the Faith, Grandfather, Alta California, Custer, Somewhere, Keyston, Pandora and Clytie, Alta Ruby, and K & H claims. Six tunnels from 500 to 1000 ft long were excavated. All but the lowest tunnel struck the vein. However, the ore had to be carefully sorted before sending to the smelter. Construction of smelting and reduction works was begun at the base of the mountain where the town of Wickes was established in 1877. In that same year financial troubles resulted in the reorganization of the company as the Alta-Montana Mining Company with William Wickes as president and Samuel T. Hauser as director.

By 1883 the Alta-Montana Company called it quits; the company had lost $500,000 developing the mines and in 1882 the mill in Wicks was destroyed by fire. Under Samuel T. Hauser's new firm, the Helena Mining and Reduction Company (H. M. & R) new development was pushed forward developing drifts while a new smelter was erected at Corbin. From 1884 the mine shipped 150 tons of ore per day to the Corbin smelter. The lower tunnel was extended to 3,000 ft at which point it struck the largest body of ore in the mine. Because of transportation difficulties, the mine was glutted with ore awaiting wagon transport to the smelter. In 1888 a railroad was constructed from the mine to the smelter that was capable of hauling 300 tons per day. In 1886, 450 men were employed at the mine and mills. However, as a result of the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the smelter was closed in 1893. The mine's ore was shipped to East Helena for a time, but the mine closed in 1896. The railway between Wickes and Helena closed in 1900, and in 1902 the town of Wickes burned. It is conservatively estimated that the mine produced $5 million in precious metals (Babcock 1982; Swallow 1891).

In 1909, work resumed for a year on the Alta, a two compartment shaft was sunk to 700 ft and an electrically powered plant was built to support operations down to the 1000-ft level. At the 700-ft level a crosscut was driven 1,400 ft to intersect a vein. The older portions of the mine were repaired for escape and ventilation purposes. A 100-ton mill in Corbin that was equipped with crushers and two tables concentrated the ore (Hill 1912; Walsh 1910).

By 1917 the company had been reorganized several times and, under the name of the Alta Montana Mining Company, sank an external shaft to mine under the old workings; no ore was recovered at an expense of $110,000. In 1925 the Hewitt Mill was erected about a mile east to retreat the Alta tailings. Finally, the reworked tailings were trucked in 1949 to the smelter in East Helena. From 1902 to 1957 the mine produced 349,839 tons of ore which yielded 8,174 ounces of gold, 1,165,299 ounces of silver, 546,286 pounds of copper, 8,134,488 pounds of lead and 1,234,644 pounds of zinc.

Bertha

The Bertha mine was located on the east side of Gregory Mountain in 1885. Development on the mine had to wait until 1906-07 when the Boston and Corbin Mining Company drove two adits and a 900-ft shaft. A mill was operated at the mine beginning in 1907. In 1913, a 200-ton concentrator was built on the site, because of the low grade of ore, operations ceased in November of 1913. In 1916 operations resumed with a 100-ton flotation unit supplementing the concentrator. The mine workings were expanded to also develop the Corbin mine. In 1917 fire destroyed the concentrator and the mine was closed. The combined Bertha and Corbin mines produced 90,660 tons of ore which yielded 279 ounces of gold, 162,043 ounces of silver, 2,423,143 pounds of copper and 26,730 pounds of lead.

Bluebird

The Bluebird group of mines is five miles north of Wickes and generally regarded as the oldest in the district. The Bluebird and Star claims were located in 1886. When surveyed in 1890, the claim had two shafts and a tunnel. The low grade ores from the mine were sent to Wickes to be processed. From 1887 to 1893 the mine produced 1,000 tons of ore. The mine was not a major producer until 1909 when the Michigan and Montana Mining and Development Company purchased the complex. By 1911, 4,146 ft of drifts had been developed through a 1000-ft shaft and a 2,320-ft adit. The ore, a sulphide carrying gold, silver and copper, was shipped to smelters in Butte for processing. Between 1902 and 1946 the mine produced 3,454 ounces of gold, 33,393 ounces of silver, 960,259 pounds of copper and 203,949 pounds of lead (Babcock 1982; Walsh 1910).

Corbin Flats

Corbin Flats area has historically been used by the owners of the Alta mine to process their ore. In 1884 H. M. & R built the Corbin Concentrating works. The facility cost $80,000 and could initially treat 125-150 tons per day and was expanded to treat 250 tons per day. After the mine closed in 1896 the Peck concentrator was built to process the tailings of the old mill. In 1925 the Hewitt mill was built a mile east of Corbin to reprocess the tailings using flotation. This mill treated about 146,000 tons of Alta tailings from 1938 to 1941.

Gregory

The Gregory was one of the first mines to be developed in the Colorado district. Its glittering ores of argentiferous galena streaked with crystals of antimony quickly attracted the attention of investors. However, its initial development was a complete failure. Investor's money was spent on building a mill before the underground workings were developed. Unfortunately the mill was ill-equipped to handle the rich ore and most of the values ended up on the waste dump. When the directors shut down the mine in 1886, the miners, who were owed back wages, held the directors in the hoisting works until payment was received (Walsh 1910).

The Gregory was discovered in 1864. The mining complex is composed of the Belleville, Flagstaff, Gregory (mine and mill sites), and Matchless claims. The first smelter was built in 1867 and utilized the American hearth process. In 1884, the Gregory Consolidated Mining Company built a concentrator that could handle 30 to 60 tons per day. The mine and mill complex were reported to have produced $8 million before the mine closed in 1886.

From 1889 to 1918 the mine was worked by lessees who shipped a total of 3000 tons from the waste dumps and tails. A second vein was discovered, but never worked. The Knickerbocker Mines Corporation was organized in 1929 to work the mine. It was widely held that the mine had closed for labor reasons and not for lack of ore. However, no ore was produced by the new company. From 1941 to 1943, the American Smelting and Refining company drained the mine and sampled the ore.

The mine had seven levels driven from a 720-ft shaft. Three drifts were driven from the shaft cellar. Although many of the early records were destroyed by fire, it is estimated that the Gregory produced 1,381 ounces of gold, 66,655 ounces of silver, 38,470 pounds of copper, 862, 370 pounds of lead, and 132,563 pounds of zinc from 18,977 tons of ore (Babcock, William A 1982).

Minah

The Minah was situated three miles north of Wickes. With its high grade galena ore, the mine was one of the best paying mines in the state in the late 1880s. Joseph Briscoe began developing the mine in 1885 and sent most of its ore to Great Falls for reduction (Swallow 1990).

Minnesota

The Minnesota mine was located four miles north of Wickes in the Gregory sub-district. In 1909 the Calumet and Corbin Copper Company sank a two compartment shaft 400 ft. Some 2000 ft of development work was done on various levels and the surface plant was equipped with a boiler and steam hoist. Twenty-five men were employed.

Washington

The Washington mine is composed of three groups of mines: the Elkador group, the Blizzard Group and the Mount Washington Group. These include the Mount Washington, Placer, Deer, Deer Lode, Wickes, Houghton, Little Nancy, Little Nancy Extension, Elkador Extension, Blizzard, and Blizzard #2 claims. The Elkador lode was located in 1882 and developed through a 160-ft shaft, later a 900-ft drift was driven. The Blizzard claim was located in 1887; little is known of the operation of the mine while it was in the hands of the Blizzard Mining company. The Placer in 1892 was the first Mount Washington claim to be located. The Washington group of claims were the most significant producers of ore in the Wickes district after 1910 and operated consistently until 1960.

By 1920 a 1984-ft tunnel had joined the Mount Washington and Blizzard mines. A mill was built in 1922 to concentrate ore from the mine. The Angelica Mining Company treated 5,760 tons of ore produce $35,000 worth of concentrate. The mill was destroyed in 1923.

The mine was purchased by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company of Butte and leased it to the Elm Orlu Mining Company who recovered $400,000 from the ore processed in its Timber Butte mill in Butte.

It is not clear when the present mill was built, different sources place its construction between 1936 and 1941. The mine's greatest production occurred between 1942 and 1945 when it was operated by the Monongahela -Mount Washington Company. The mine was closed in 1945 and the mill equipment sold. From 1902 to 1951, the Mount Washington produced a total of 182,001 tons of ore yielding 11,651 ounces of gold, 1,344,082 ounces of silver, 543,770 pounds of copper, 14,509,148 pounds of lead, and 8,044,639 pounds of zinc (Babcock 1982).

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